Album Reviews

Britney Spears – Circus

(RCA) UK release date: 1 December 2008

Ah, those innocent days seem so far away now. Videos in school uniform, chaste romances with Justin Timberlake, ‘feuds’ with Christina Aguilera. Was it all really nearly a decade ago?

In those ten years, Britney Spears has gone from being America’s Sweetheart to the most visible mental breakdown in history. It’s a journey that’s taken in knickerless nights out with Paris Hilton, head shaving, attacking photographers with umbrellas, alleged drug overdoses and resultant televised dashes to hospital and, saddest of all, a stumbling, painful appearance on MTV’s Award Show.

It was probably that MTV appearance last year that was the most disturbing sight – the former Queen of her territory, reduced to a shambling, bewildered mess lip-synching badly in some very unflattering underwear. There were even some who wondered whether we’d ever see another album from her again.

Yet the turnaround seems to have been completed. Last year’s Blackout had some encouraging signs, even if it was mostly the disturbing sound of a woman in full meltdown. For Circus, she’s working with several respected producers, including Guy Sigsworth (formerly of Frou Frou), Timbaland protege Danja, and even Max Martin, the Swedish producer responsible for …Baby One More Time.

Womanizer, which opens the album, is smart and sassy, the natural sequel to Toxic with its nagging chorus and weird, eerie electro sound effects throughout. The title track is in a similar danceable mood, with some self-aware lyrics comparing showbusiness to the titular Circus, and casting Britney as the ringmaster. It’s a confident, and encouraging, return to form.

Showbiz voyeurs will no doubt devour the lyrics of Kill The Lights, seemingly an open letter to Spears’ paparazzi photographer ex-boyfriend with lines like “Mr Photographer, I think I’m ready for my close-up” and “is that money in your pocket, or are you just pleased to see me”. The excellent Blur will also provide plenty of talking points, casting Britney as a hungover party animal asking “who the hell are you, and what did we do last night?”.

The mournful electro-pop Unusual You appealingly shows off Spears’ vulnerable side, sounding extraordinarily world-weary for a 27 year old as she sings “didn’t anyone tell you you’re supposed to break my heart, I expect you to”. It’s reminiscent of Gwen Stefani‘s quieter moments, and gives a pointer to an interesting new direction.

As with most Britney albums though, the decent moments are also balanced out with average filler and the odd shockingly bad moment. Lace And Leather is marred by some terrible slap-bass, which brings to mind Seinfield‘s Kramer sliding in through the nearest door, while My Baby is a horribly saccharine ballad to Spears’ children, with unintentionally hilarious lines like “I smell your breath, it makes me cry”.

Nothing though even comes close to the sheer horror of Mmm Papi, which sees Britney intoning “I’m Mami, which makes you Papi, and that makes us lovee”, which if it’s any indication of her chat-up lines may explain her recent trouble with men. If U Seek Amy meanwhile is a bad pun written into song, seemingly just for the shock value excuse of hearing the most famous ex-virgin in the world sing “all the boys and all of the girls are begging to F.U.C.K. me”.

As ever, Britney’s voice is a limited instrument, sounding far more at home on the dance numbers than on heartfelt ballads such as Out From Under. Yet she’s got the nous to surround herself with songwriting teams who play up to her strong points, and let’s face it, you don’t buy a Britney Spears album to hear her hit a myriad of high notes.

Obviously all is still not perfect in Britney’s world, but Circus still does more than enough to remind us of why she’s one of the world’s most iconic pop stars.

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